The Women’s Project saw the need for an approach that acknowledged the ways in which all forms of oppression were intertwined. With a spotlight on hate violence, they built a statewide network of mostly rural Arkansans who tracked and responded to threats.
In 1991, David Duke, a neo-Nazi and former head of the Ku Klux Klan, ran for Governor of Louisiana.
When Women’s Project members heard he had been invited to headline a Republican Party dinner in Walnut Ridge, Arkansas, they quickly mobilized. A multiracial group of people came from all over the state to protest Duke’s white supremacist organizing and racist policy agenda. Board member Juanita Weston-Burton was among the protesters.
“It was so ironic to me that the local policemen were taking pictures of us rather than [David Duke]. So we of course posed for them. Because we were not afraid. And here we were, confronting the Ku Klux Klansmen.”
Juanita Weston-Burton, 2019 Oral History
When the Ku Klux Klan reemerged in the 1970s for the third major spike in its history, it was a part of a larger ecosystem of white supremacist groups organizing in reaction to the growth and success of the freedom movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Conservative politicians courted rightwing movements in an effort to transform the Republican Party, paving the way for Ronald Reagan’s election to the presidency in 1980. Reagan regularly signaled that he was unwilling to take action against white supremacist groups and took their politics into active consideration when deciding policy.
The Christian Right—evangelicals organized into groups with a political agenda of merging church and state—were particularly active. Some groups dressed in suits and ran members for public office, dominating electoral politics across the South. Others, like those in the Christian Identity movement, sought a quicker resolution by overthrowing the government. They formed armed militias, stocked militarized compounds, and plotted attacks on government buildings, officials, and anyone who did not meet their white, heterosexual vision of the world. At the time, these shades of the Christian Right represented only a small fraction of evangelical Christians, but as they gained more followers and visibility, their collective rise to power ushered in increased violence on every level.
The stakes were rising. In 1979, a caravan of Klansmen and neo-Nazis gunned down anti-Klan demonstrators in Greensboro, North Carolina, killing five people and wounding ten. The killers were acquitted. As the violence grew, organizers around the country recognized both the growing dangers of directly confronting the rising white power movement and the absolute necessity of doing so.
That same year, anti-racist organizers, Reverend C.T. Vivian and Anne Braden, founded the multiracial National Anti-Klan Network, later known as the Center for Democratic Renewal (CDR), a collection of local groups across the country committed to tracking hate groups and mobilizing together. They focused on strategies best suited to building organizing power in the mostly rural South. State-based groups like the Women’s Project and North Carolinians Against Racist and Religious Violence shared reports on hate violence with CDR, which compiled them to show regional and national trends.
“We were saying to ourselves...nobody in Arkansas is monitoring those folks. Somebody needs to be watching those and infiltrating them if they can, staying on top of what they're doing and being public about them—you know, revealing their ugly heads as they pop up.”
Suzanne Pharr, 2020 Oral History
Documentation became a key part of the Women’s Project’s organizing strategy in Arkansas. They tracked the activities of white supremacist groups that were building power from backwoods compounds to the state capitol.
Given its history as the site of some of the most heinous acts of racist violence in United States history, Arkansas proved to be fertile ground for many white supremacist and Christian Right groups. In the 1980s, Ku Klux Klan leader Thom Robb and his followers set up a compound and training center outside of Harrison, which had been a town infamous for forcing out all of its Black residents at gunpoint in 1905. The Aryan Liberty Net ran their computer center out of North Little Rock, and the editor of the Christian Patriots’ publication the Justice Times lived in Clinton. Women’s Project Board member Kathy Brown-Nichols witnessed the growing activity.
In 1985, a militant Christian Identity group called the Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord (CSA) made national news when an FBI investigation ended in an armed stand-off at their residential compound and training camp that straddled the Missouri-Arkansas border near Bull Shoals Lake. Women’s Project staffer Kerry Lobel remembered scoping out the area.
Several members of the CSA were later charged with plotting to overthrow the United States government along with a dozen other national neo-Nazi and Christian Identity leaders. Ahead of the Fort Smith trial, the Ku Klux Klan held at least fifteen rallies in the area from which jurors would be called. Unsurprisingly, an all-white jury acquitted all fourteen defendants. After the trial, at least one defendant married a juror and settled in town.
Meanwhile, arsonists were burning Black churches across the state. Women’s Project members were hearing about an increase in racist incidents in K-12 schools, threats of violence against LGBTQ people at the University of Arkansas, and ongoing murders of women and girls.
Because they saw all forms of oppression as interconnected, the Women’s Project tracked violence based on gender and sexuality, ability, and age in addition to incidents that were more traditionally considered “hate violence.”
“The violence the Women’s Project chooses to monitor is not random and disconnected. It occurs in a context of institutional support.”
Suzanne Pharr, “Redefining Hate Violence,” Transformation, March/April 1991
From these convictions, the Women’s Project built the Women’s Watchcare Network in 1988. Volunteers clipped articles from local newspapers and kept their ears to the ground to report stories of racist, religious, homophobic, gender-based, and age-based violence and the activities of hate groups. They would send the clippings and any other information to the Women’s Project headquarters in Little Rock to be compiled into annual reports highlighting the scope of the violence. By the fall of 1989, more than 100 people around the state had joined the Women’s Watchcare Network as volunteer monitors and “eyes and ears for justice.”
The Women’s Project focused on recruiting church women as Watchcare volunteers as a way to counteract the expansion of white supremacy within churches. Women’s Project director Suzanne Pharr wrote in 1989, “We feel that church people who believe in peace and justice need to be offered productive ways to support their beliefs.”
“Our primary goal is to create a network of people who have a high awareness of bigoted violence in the state so that we, working together, can develop strategies to bring an end to that violence. This is the project that brings all of our issues together as we work for social and economic justice for all women and against the interconnected oppressions of sexism, racism, and homophobia.”
Suzanne Pharr, “Women’s Watchcare Network: Bringing Together All of Our Issues,” Transformation, March 1989
The work of putting together the annual Watchcare reports was not easy. “Almost daily we are inundated with accounts of hate and violence committed against people just because of who they are,” staffer Kelly Mitchell-Clark wrote. It could be intensely personal and painful. But on the other hand, she noted, “we have also had even more reason to be encouraged and hopeful about the possibility of effecting change as more and more people join the resistance movement against violence in hopes of making our state safe for all people.”
Numbers and statistics are sometimes criticized for erasing the human aspects of violence, but data has traditionally played an important role in building movement strategy. Ida B. Wells-Barnett was among the most famous activists using this tactic, raising awareness about the scale and causes of lynching through her journalism in the late nineteenth century. The Women’s Project joined a long tradition of organizers using data to aid the struggle against white supremacy. They balanced charts and graphs showing violence by publishing the names and stories of victims in the Watchcare reports.
Moving people from documenting violence in their communities to engaging in direct action was an essential part of the work. Sometimes the motivation to act emerged organically, a result of convictions people built while investigating the hate group activity and acts of violence happening around them. Ozarks-based volunteers James and Susan DeVito, for example, led a direct challenge to the Ku Klux Klan with the support of the Women’s Project and subsequently became active in the larger work of the Women’s Watchcare Network.
In other cases, volunteer monitors took direct action after attending trainings. Women’s Watchcare Network meetings and conferences were places where people from across the state could skill up and meet crews from other towns facing similar threats.
Hate groups were rallying outside of rural areas, as well. In 1992, right wing Christian activists from Texas arrived at Bill Clinton’s Little Rock church, Emmanuel Baptist, during his presidential campaign.
The group, led by Reverend W. N. Otwell, showed up every Sunday for months with homophobic signs, chants, and theater to spread a message of hate. The Women’s Project was deeply critical of Bill Clinton because of policies he enacted as governor that they saw as harmful, but they saw in the Otwell demonstrations an opportunity to teach tactical protest skills, build community, and capitalize on media attention to advance conversations around homophobia statewide. So they staged a long-term counter-protest.
Women’s Project members went head to head with hate groups when those groups dared to show up in public. The organization developed a network of rural people with boots on the ground in dozens of towns, ready to flex their collective power when needed. Connecting people across geography strengthened their ability to back each other up in ways that the opposition might not suspect.